Hundreds isolating as COVID rips through Miami jails; inmates going back to Zoom hearings

That number includes 118 sworn employees who are at home after testing positive

By David Ovalle
Miami Herald
MIAMI, Fla. — Officials are scaling back the number of inmates who will be transported to Miami-Dade’s criminal courthouse as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the ranks of inmates and corrections officers — again.

Miami’s chief administrative judge over the criminal division, in an email Tuesday to justice agency officials, said the number of COVID cases in the jails has “quadrupled over the last 10 days” and “put a tremendous strain” on the Miami-Dade Corrections department.

Until at least Jan. 14, inmates will only be transported from Miami-Dade’s three jails for “essential and pre-approved trials and hearings,” Circuit Judge Andrea Ricker Wolfson wrote. Most inmates, much as they did during the extended lockdown at the start of the pandemic, will appear for hearings on the virtual platform Zoom.

An elevated walkway leading from the Miami-Dade County Pre-Trial Detention Center to the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building is shown, Friday, June 4, 2021, in Miami.
An elevated walkway leading from the Miami-Dade County Pre-Trial Detention Center to the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building is shown, Friday, June 4, 2021, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

As of Tuesday, the corrections department had 118 sworn employees who are at home isolating after testing positive for COVID. Behind bars, 140 inmates are isolating after testing positive.

The spike across Florida, fueled by the omicron variant, has led to mammoth lines at testing centers, a shortage of take-home testing kits and the cessation of most patient visitation at Jackson Health system facilities.

As it has during previous COVID waves, Miami-Dade’s criminal justice system has been hard hit by the spread of the highly contagious virus.

The ranks of South Florida police agencies have been hit hard, although there’s less of a fear of the virus killing as many officers as during previous surges. Dozens of employees of the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, and the Public Defender’s Office, have tested positive for COVID-19 this month.

On Tuesday alone, the State Attorney’s Office reported 24 new cases of COVID-positive employees. Because of the rising numbers and hoping to curb the spread of the virus, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle authorized employees to work from home on Wednesday and Thursday. With Friday already a paid New Year’s holiday, employees won’t have to return to the office until Monday.

“I caution you to be mindful of the events you will attend, the number of persons who will be present at these events and whether everyone will be wearing masks,” she wrote in an email to staff on Tuesday.

In court, Miami-Dade’s chief judge has again mandated masks for those inside courthouses, following a similar order by the mayor for county-owned buildings. Jury trials have also been suspended through Dec. 31, although the holiday season is usually slow for such proceedings.

Miami-Dade jails — with their enclosed spaces and steady stream of new inmates — have long been hot spots for the novel coronavirus. That’s led to a slew of deaths among officers and inmates.

In a statement Tuesday, corrections spokesman Juan Diasgranados stressed that all new inmates are tested and — along with staff — must wear masks inside the detention centers. He added that vaccines for staff and inmates are also available at the jails.

“As we’ve seen in the past, when the numbers go up in the community, the numbers tend to climb in our facilities as well. I can tell you that we are closely monitoring the emerging information on the newly-identified Omicron variant as well as the Center for Disease Control & Prevention’s guidance on it,” Diasgranados said.

©2021 Miami Herald.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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